Many articles have been written about whats wrong with Ayn Rands philosophy. But, to my knowledge, none of them presents her ideas accurately. So I thought it would be helpful to write one that does.
Heres whats wrong with Rands ideas:
Rand held that existence exists, that reality is real, that there is a world out there, and that we are conscious of it. She held that everything in existence is something specific; everything has a nature; a thing is what it is. (A snake is a snake. A woman is a woman. A pillar of salt is a pillar of salt.) She held that a thing can act only in accordance with its nature. (A snake can slither; it cannot speak. A woman can speak; she cant become a pillar of salt.) And Rand held that there is only one reality: the one we perceive, the one we experience, the one in which we live.1
Where to start with all of the problems in just that one paragraph?
To begin with, the idea that existence exists excludes the idea that existence doesnt exist. It denies the subjectivist, pragmatist, postmodernist view that reality is an illusion, a mental construct, a social convention. Obviously, people who insist that reality is not real are not going to buy in to a philosophy that says it is real.
So thats one huge problem with Rands philosophy.
Now consider her view that only one reality exists. This excludes the notion that a second reality exists; it excludes the idea of a supernatural realm, the realm of God. Likewise, her view that everything has a specific nature, that a thing is what it is, excludes the possibility that some things are not what they are. For instance, it excludes the possibility that a dead person can be alive (life after death), the possibility that wine can be blood or that bread can be flesh (transubstantiation), and the possibility that the Earth came into existence hundreds of thousands of years after the first Homo sapiens roamed it. Similarly, the idea that things can act only in accordance with their nature excludes the possibility of miraclesso: no Immaculate Conception, no virgin birth (of Jesus), no living inside a whale for three days, no walking on water, no faith healing, and so on.
Needless to say, people who insist on the existence of God, life after death, creationism, and miracles will not buy in to a philosophy that leaves no room for such things.
The problems with Rands philosophy are mounting rapidlyand weve just begun.
Another major problem is Rands view that man acquires knowledge by means of reason, the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by his senses. According to Rand, insofar as a person observes reality via his senses; integrates his observations into concepts, generalizations, and principles; checks his thinking for contradictions; and checks his conclusions for consistency with his ever-expanding network of observation-based integrationshe can acquire knowledge. Indeed, according to Rand human beings have acquired massive amounts of knowledge, which is why science has advanced so far and man has accomplished so much.2
Well, that view will not go over well with skeptics, pragmatists, and postmodernists who argue that man cannot acquire knowledgeat least not knowledge of reality. Because mans sensory apparatuses process all incoming data before it reaches consciousness, these skeptics argue, man is conscious not of an external reality or a world out there, but rather of internal modifications or distortions.
No human being has ever experienced an objective world, or even a world at all, writes Sam Harris. The sights and sounds and pulsings that you experience are consequences of processed datadata that has been structured, edited, or amplified by the nervous system. Thus, The world that you see and hear is nothing more than a modification of your consciousness.3
This fashionable view is rooted in the ideas of Immanuel Kant, who wrote: What objects may be in themselves, and apart from all this receptivity of our sensibility [i.e., perception], remains completely unknown to us. Once we understand this, Kant says, we realise that not only are the drops of rain mere appearances, but that even their round shape, nay even the space in which they fall, are nothing in themselves, but merely modifications within consciousness. In principle, Kant says, the actual objectthe object as it really isremains unknown to us.4
Indeed, says Kant, it is an error even to regard external objects as things-in-themselves, which exist independently of us and of our sensibility, and which are therefore outside us. The truth, he says, is that external objects are mere appearances or species of [internal] representations, and the things we perceive are something only through these representations. Apart from them they are nothing.5
When philosophers or intellectuals claim that we cannot know reality because our sensory apparatuses distort the data before it reaches consciousness, they may sound profound or impressive (at least to each other). But, then, along comes Ayn Rand, who points out that such claims amount to the view that man is blind, because he has eyesdeaf, because he has earsdeluded, because he has a mindand the things he perceives do not exist, because he perceives them.6
As you might imagine, such straightforward clarifications, which abound in Rands works, can make skeptics feel as ignorant as they claim to be. So thats another problem with Rands philosophy.
Further, Rand holds that reason is mans only means of gaining knowledge.7 This excludes the possibility that revelation, faith, feelings, or extrasensory perception (ESP) is a means of knowledge. On her view, to embrace ideas not supported by evidence is to err. Thus Rand sees all forms of mysticismall claims to a non-sensory, non-rational means of knowledgeas baseless, arbitrary, illegitimate.
That, of course, will not fly with religionists, subjectivists, psychics, or others who claim to acquire knowledge through non-sensory, non-rational means.
And then there are the myriad problems posed by Rands conception of free will.
Rand holds that people do indeed possess free willand that it resides in a fundamental choice: to think or not to think, to focus ones mind or not to do so, to go by facts or to go by feelings.8 The problems with this idea manifest on several levels.
For starters, if people have free will, then not only are their choices their responsibility, so too are the consequences of their choices. If a person characteristically chooses to think, and if his thinking guides him to build a business and make a lot of money, then the business and the money are his achievements. Likewise, if a person characteristically chooses not to think, and if his non-thinking renders him poor and miserable, then his poverty and misery are his fault.
Well, egalitarians, socialists, communists, and the like are not going to accept that for a minute. People who want to organize society in a way that ignores or denies personal responsibility will not accept a philosophy that upholds the very principle that gives rise to and necessitates personal responsibility.
Nor will Rands conception of free will jibe with Jews, Christians, or Muslims who take their religion seriously. If people truly choose to think or not to think, then the notion of an omnipotent, omniscient God goes out the window. Think about it: If people are free to think or not to think, then whatever powers an alleged God is said to possess, he cant know in advance which alternative people are going to choose. If God existed and knew in advance how people were going to choose, then their choices would be preordainedthus they wouldnt be genuine choices. Likewise, if people are free to think or not to think, then God cant make them choose to think. Nor can he make them choose not to think. You see the problem.
In short, Rands view of free will leaves no room for the existence of an all-knowing, all-powerful God. This will not sit well with anyone who insists that such a God exists.
And thats still just the tip of Rands free-will iceberg. Her view of volition leads to a whole host of additional problems. Consider a few more.
If people choose to think or not to think, then they choose all of their actions that are governed by that fundamental choice as well. For instance, on Rands view, a person can choose to be honest or dishonest. He can refuse to pretend that facts are other than they areor he can choose to engage in such pretense.9 Importantly, Rands views on honesty and dishonesty are not merely about telling the truth versus lying. Rand holds that if a person knows something to be true but pretends that he doesnt know it, then even if he doesnt lie about iteven if he maintains the pretense only in his own mindhe is being dishonest. For instance, on Rands view, if a person knows that a friend has acted unjustly but pretends that he doesnt know it, hes being dishonest. And if a person knows that he owes someone an apology but doesnt extend it, hes being dishonest. In such cases, although the person has not lied, he nevertheless is pretending that facts are other than they are.
Well, people who choose occasionally to pretend that they dont know what they do knowand who want to continue in this fashionwill not embrace a philosophy that says they are able to stop deluding themselves and morally corrupt if they dont. (Of course, they might pretend to embrace it, but thats another matter.)
Likewise, on Rands view, a person can choose to think for himself, or he can turn to others and expect them to think for him. In other words, he can engage in independent thinking or in what Rand termed second-handedness.10 (An example of independent thinking would be someone reading a philosophers works and deciding for himself whether they make sense. An example of second-handedness would be someone turning to others to see what they say he should think about the philosophers ideas.) Rands insistence that people should face reality and think for themselves as a matter of unwavering principle is a problembecause many people are afraid to think for themselves. Many people prefer to avoid that effort, to shirk that responsibility, and to passively accept the ideas of their group, their leader, their tribe. Such people will not embrace a philosophy that upholds independent thinking as a fundamental virtue.
This brings us to the mother lode of problems with Ayn Rands philosophyand to the point of the whole thing.
Rands aforementioned principles calling for people to uphold reason, to be honest, and to think for themselves are part and parcel of the moral code she called rational egoism or rational self-interest. This moral code holds that the objective standard of moral value is mans lifeby which Rand means the requirements of human life given the kind of being that humans are. On her view, because humans are rational beingsbeings whose basic means of survival is the use of reasonthat which sustains and furthers the life of a rational being is good (or moral), and that which harms or destroys the life of a rational being is bad (or evil).11
Further, because Rand sees human beings as individualseach with his own body, his own mind, his own lifeshe holds that each individuals own life is properly his own ultimate value. She holds that each individual should choose and pursue his own life-serving values, and that he should never surrender a greater value for the sake of a lesser valuehe should never commit a sacrifice. As she puts it:
Manevery manis an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.12
Well, such a moral code clearly will not fly with people who want to maintain the traditional notion that people have a moral duty to sacrifice themselves or their values for the sake of others (i.e., altruism). Nor will it fly with people who feel that they have a moral right to sacrifice other people as they see fit (predation).
Not only does Rand regard both self-sacrifice and the sacrifice of others as immoral; she also regards the use of any form or degree of initiatory physical force against human beings as properly illegal. In her words, the essential characteristics of a civilized society are that men deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit; and that no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force, and no man may initiate the use of physical force against others.13
Needless to say, Rands staunch advocacy of voluntary exchange to mutual benefit and her moral opposition to the use of force as a means of obtaining values from people will not fly with people or governments that want to use force to obtain values from people. Criminals who want to steal peoples belongings, commit fraud, rape people, or violate rights in other ways will not embrace a moral code that forbids them to do so. Likewise, governments that want to force people to serve the common good or the community or the master race or some other master will not recognize or uphold a morality that forbids them to initiate physical force against people. And pull-peddling businessmen who want government to forcibly control, regulate, or cripple their competitors will not recognize or uphold a moral code that forbids such coercion either.
This problemRands moral opposition to the use of physical force against human beingslies at the very base of her political theory, where it serves as a bridge between her moral code and her political views. This is where Rands theory of rights comes into the picture. As she put it:
Rights are a moral conceptthe concept that provides a logical transition from the principles guiding an individuals actions to the principles guiding his relationship with othersthe concept that preserves and protects individual morality in a social contextthe link between the moral code of a man and the legal code of a society, between ethics and politics. Individual rights are the means of subordinating society to moral law.14
Rand sees individual rights as the governing principle of a civilized society because she sees rights as deriving from mans nature and as requirements of his life in a social context. She elaborates:
A right is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a mans freedom of action in a social context. There is only one fundamental right (all the others are its consequences or corollaries): a mans right to his own life. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action; the right to life means the right to engage in self-sustaining and self-generated actionwhich means: the freedom to take all the actions required by the nature of a rational being for the support, the furtherance, the fulfillment and the enjoyment of his own life. (Such is the meaning of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.)15
According to Rand, the only proper purpose of government is to protect individual rights by banning physical force from social relationshipsand by using force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use.16
Clearly, no one who wants government to do more than that will embrace Rands philosophy. No one who wants government to forcibly redistribute wealth, or to forbid certain kinds of speech, or to forbid certain kinds of consensual adult sex, or to restrict freedom in any other way will embrace a philosophy that demands principled recognition and absolute protection of individual rights.
A final problem worth mentioning about Rand and her philosophy is that she wrote in plain, intelligible English and defined her terms clearly as a matter of course, so that anyone who wants to understand her ideas can do so with relative ease. Toward this end, in addition to presenting her ideas in various nonfiction works, she dramatized them in spellbinding fictionsuch as her novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shruggedthus enabling people to see her ideas in practice. Well, this will not go over well with modern philosophers or academics who insist that philosophy must be written in academese, technical jargon, or impenetrable fog. Nor will it pass muster with anyone who feels that dramatizing or concretizing ideas in fiction somehow disqualifies them.
We could go on. Rands philosophy involves many additional problems. But the foregoing is a concise indication of the trouble it causes.
So, next time the subject of whats wrong with Ayn Rands ideas comes up, be sure to share this brief sketch of the kinds of problems involved. Its better for people to learn whats wrong with Rands actual ideas than to waste time contemplating takedowns of straw men.
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